I wasn’t planning to read this book. Its cover caught my eye on the “new books” shelves at the library. There is a picture of a library checkout card, with the same name, Rory Dawn Hendrix, on every line. I’ve certainly borrowed the same book from a library more than once, and occasionally twice in a row if I hadn’t managed to finish it the first time. But never more than that – if two times wasn’t enough to finish the book, either I wasn’t interested enough in the book or I needed to buy it.
I opened to the inside flap to see what the book was about. A brief review speaks of the “heartbreaking but hopeful end.” I didn’t want to read about heartbreak. But I wanted to know what the library checkout card was about. “Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scouts. She hasn’t got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she’s check the Handbook out from the elementary school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal content” for tips on how to get out of the trailer park where she lives.
I read the first page. I was intrigued. Of what kind of people would the narrator write, “I call these people family. I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they’re coming back for their kids”? Why does she (based on the title, I assumed the narrator was a girl) mention so early that “Mama may have been an easy lay, but I’m cool with that because any easy lay will tell you, making it look easy is a lot of work”? I didn’t want to read about easy lays, but the way she said it suggested it wasn’t going to be the typical approach to casual sex.
I read a few more pages. The chapters are very short – usually just a page or two. I learn quickly about the origins of the trailer park where Rory lives with her (single) mother, and that both her mother and her grandmother had moved here to leave behind the men who had fathered their children, and for the ease of getting a job in a casino or at a bar. It wasn’t the kind of book I wanted to read. But I kept turning pages. I figured I might as well check it out of the library and read it at home.
The descriptions of life in a trailer park both appalled me and gripped my interest. Attitudes towards just about everything are different from what I grew up with. There is little in the way of stability and nothing in the way of permanence. Yet as in any culture, there are definite expectations, things you have to do and things you had better not do. You know that any real future lies outside this life, and at fifteen you get out if you can. But so long as you live here, you help protect its way of life from interference by the common enemy – the government.
My only exposure to life in a trailer park came from a week I spent visiting a girl named Linda Bassett whom we had met one summer at a campground (on Cape Cod, I think). She came to stay with us for a week, and then I went to stay with her family for a week. I was used to money being tight, and to being left on my own while our parents were at work (and, some years, while my sister was at school, because of split sessions at the high school which was too small for the growing population). But whatever burdens this put on me were nothing compared to life with the Bassett family.
My parents bought the cheapest cuts of meat and the least expensive brand of groceries, and generally followed the habits of thrift learned during the Depression. But they insisted on healthy meals made up from the four basic food groups, which meant that there were always fruits and vegetables, cheese, nuts, milk, and whole grain bread and cereals available. I was appalled to see Linda and her siblings making a meal out of nothing but sugar-coated cold cereal or a bowl of macaroni. Appalled also, at the way the older children bullied the younger when the parents were away at work, and – when the parents were at home – the realization that the older ones had learned their behavior from their parents.
At least there was a father in their family. Rory’s father is not only absent but unknown. If her mother knows who the father was, she never said. I cannot think of a single positive male role model in the whole book. It’s not that males are absent. But the ones who do come into her life are not to be trusted.
One (early) part of the book that certainly qualifies as heartbreaking is the account of Rory being (repeatedly) molested by the father of the girl who babysits her. There are no graphic descriptions – Rory never says in so many words what happens – but if anything, her inability to verbalize what happens make it even more clear how terrible the events are to her.
The one positive thing about it is that once her mother realizes what has been going on, the trailer park community unites against the molester. The beating he receives is “one fist short of requiring an ambulance” (which would mean government intrusion into their lives), no bartender will serve him (the ultimate punishment where people rely on alcohol to treat all their ills), and his employer finds someone else to do his job. The man quietly moves out – taking with him, unfortunately, his daughter, who remains trapped with her molester.
Despite Rory’s claim to be “feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock,” it is soon clear that she is very intelligent. She wins a spelling bee, goes on to compete in the state championship, and only throws away the chance to go farther because it would take her farther from home and her mother. (I read a review of the book suggesting that this does not ring true, that the was borrowed from some other story, that dealt not with “white trash” but the middle class.)
Rory’s disenchantment with academics comes after she writes a paper on the Fourteenth Amendment, which she writes about in terms of the Supreme Court’s failure to rule appropriately in Buck v. Bell. Rory sees clear parallels between her own family history and that of Carrie Buck, who was forcibly sterilized to prevent her passing on the traits of feeble-mindedness and promiscuity. (A note at the end of the novel indicates that the Court’s decision has never been overruled.) Rory’s teacher gives Rory her first “C” on the paper, because “Mrs. Croxton wanted pretty pages about how far we’ve come since slavery, not ratty truths about what work awaits us with other groups still deemed less than human.”
By this point in the book, there are clear messages being expressed, rather than the apparently aimless musings of a younger Rory earlier in the book. It’s all about how you are shaped by how you start out in life. Even the first chapter reflects on how mistakes made earlier in life leave lasting effects, no matter how well you do later. A later chapter, about birds, quotes a book saying that the basic shape of every bird is that of an egg (to which are added head, wings, and tail), from which Rory concludes that that one’s origins will always show.
Some reviews of the book criticize it as being too depressing. Certainly it is full of reasons for sadness, seeing so many hurting people who cannot see a way to escape the dysfunctional families and subculture in which they live. Even while education is seen as a possible ticket out, this is limited by access to good education (due to finances or to teachers who do not believe the trailer park people have the ability to excel) as well as by negative expectations on the part of the children and their families.
But the end has at least a suggestion of hope. And, looking back at the first chapter now, I see at least a hint that there is good reason for such hope.